Most of us fear losing brainpower someday, especially if we’ve watched a loved one suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. It’s no wonder, then, that an entire industry has sprung up around “brain training” — digital games, puzzles, and other tools that promise to boost memory, quicken learning, and even prevent cognitive decline. But while brain games sound great in theory, they’re not backed by science, and a new study confirms their claims are baseless.
To test whether brain training really can enhance working memory, as companies suggest, psychologists from Florida State University’s Institute for Successful Longevity recruited 60 older adults. Every day for a month, half of the participants played 45 minutes of Mind Frontiers, a brain-training video game designed to exercise specific aspects of cognition and memory. The other half did daily crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and word searches, also often believed to boost working memory even though science disputes it.
By fine-tuning working memory, brain-game makers claim you’ll improve other mental abilities such as spatial reasoning and processing speed. This should, in turn, help you do better at other, unrelated brain tasks. However, the volunteers in this study experienced none of these perks. They got better at Mind Frontiers or the specific puzzles they’d been working on, but this proficiency didn’t translate to other aspects of reasoning or memory that could help them in the real world.
“We looked at a variety of cognitive measures including IQ, processing speed, memory, and reasonability before and after the study period,” says researcher Wally Boot, a psychology professor at FSU. “These people improved largely in the precise things we trained them on, but there was a very narrow transfer of that training. Basically, you get better at brain-training games, but who cares? Do you get better at other tasks?” No, he says, which is what matters in the end and is what the brain-training industry promotes.
“A lot of people, especially seniors, have concerns about developing dementia, and commercial brain-training products are just playing to those fears,” says Neil Charness, another researcher on the study and a renowned expert in cognition and aging. “Companies are a lot more careful with their claims now that they’ve been fined for misrepresenting their products’ benefits. But they still subtly imply that brain training will help you in all sorts of ways besides the tasks you are training on.”
This does not mean brain games — or even less expensive mental activities like Sudoku — are a total waste of time. “We’re not saying all brain-training tools are bad,” Charness says. “If you enjoy mental puzzles, great. Go ahead and do them. There are lots of free tools for your smartphone or tablet.”
Just keep in mind, Charness says, that by getting really good at the New York Times’ crossword puzzles, you are simply getting really good at the New York Times’ crossword puzzles. You aren't necessarily upping your IQ, sharpening your memory, or becoming any smarter or faster at your job. “They key thing is to keep your expectations in line with what research shows,” he says. “You might enjoy these activities, but they won’t help you remember where you left your keys or parked your car.”
If you really want to protect your brain and lower your risk of dementia, step up your workouts. “Exercise is your best bet,” Boot says. “The scientific literature clearly shows that aerobic exercise is good for cognition and preserving brain structure and function. Besides, even if exercise had no cognitive benefits, you should be doing it anyway.”